Carmen, 2/07 report
Today is my SO's birthday, last night I took her out to Carmen, a sweet room slightly off the beaten path in the North End. I had spotted in while strolling the North End in nicer weather, and thought it looked like a great room, and since reviews here were good, we decided to give it a try.
Like many spaces in the North End, its tiny and somewhat cramped, but this is a part of the charm. Still, getting in was awkward. We had to wait a few minutes for our table, and for these few minutes we were in everyone's way.
We started with a shared order of Wellfleet Clams ($15), served with fennel and a spicy house-made mustard in a cream broth. The clams were perfect, and the mustard-y flavor worked suprisingly well with the broth. Some sort of herbed crostini or toast served with the clams was delicious and great for soaking up broth. We each found one clam in the bunch that was a little sandy, and both thought the dish might be slightly over-salted, but all in all we liked this dish a lot.
For our entrees, we ordered a Winter-Vegetable Risotto topped with Sea Scallops($27?), and, since they were mentioned so many times on the CH boards, the Porcini-filled Crespelle with Bolognese sauce ($20).
The scallops themselves were just fine, nothing to recommend them but nothing to complain about either. The risotto was suprisingly good, bringing great flavors out of simple veggies - mostly carrots and turnips. A butternut squash sauce ringed the plate, it could have been skipped, it added little to the dish. For the price of this dish, it would have been nice to see more than three scallops on the plate, especially since none of the other ingredients were expensive. Also, the risotto was served with a thin fried chip of something (looked like a root veggie, perhaps a parsnip) sticking out of the top of it, unfortunately something was really wrong here, it tasted as if it had been cooked in terribly rancid oil. I mean, it was really wrong. We should have said something, but we just set it aside. The rest of the dish was fine.
The Crespelle with Bolognese were quite nice, but perhaps not everything I hoped for. The Bolognese was rich and smooth, and paired well with the earthy flavor of the porcinis, but that was about all there was to this dish. I would have liked to see something to offset the flavors, perhaps a creamy goat cheese in the filling, or some sharp bitter greens like dandelion or endive to cut the richness of the sauce. This was a fine dish, but tasted a bit like the kitchen was resting on its laurels here, everything was good but nothing was inspired.
The service was fine and friendly, and the room was nice. Several other reviews noted that they make some strange music choices, and we thought this the case too. About halfway through out meal, the soundtrack switched from melodramatic ballads to something a little to disco-rock-y for a sweet dinner. I don't understand this, but I see it happening all over Boston - a great meal in a sweet room and then the place has to go and do something stupid like play totally inappropriate music or throw big screen TV's up all over the place. But, excuse me, I am starting off on a tangent.
All in all, we were very happy with out meal but not blown away. Despite a few flaws, it was a sweet night and a generally very good meal. Definitely a place we will go back to, though we are not in any big rush. The bill came out to $78 (though not including tip), including a bottle of their flagship Chianti Classico, and we had a good time. We finished the night with capuccino and tiaramisu at Caffe Vittoria.
Carmen is mostly pretty reasonably priced. I can't remember the exact price for the scallops and risotto but it was $26-28, and yes, a little high for what was served. If the risotto had been truffled or had lobster in it, maybe, but for 3 scallops and a winter vegetable risotto, it was a bit much.
Still, I don't want to sound too down on Carmen, we liked them and would go back.
I remember spending $27 for a scallop dish at Aquitaine and getting 3 scallops. Maybe it was 4 but damn, that's a little pricey when they're not even the humungous sized ones. I think Carmen was recommended as a reasonably priced North End restaurant but high $20's for entrees is more than reasonable in my book.